Friday, August 24, 2007

Closer to the Edge

Elie's unit has been moved north into the Golan Heights for a new phase in training. The terrain is very different than in the southern desert. In the Negev, the large armored vehicles crush the soft stone into a fine powder that at times was more than ankle deep. It filled the air, coating their backpacks, their beds, their faces and their guns with dust. They learned to cope, to cover their faces and wait out the dust storms, to take shelter, to clean their guns and know that the cool desert night would compensate.

The north is lush with trees, the air during the day cooler. The ground is covered with ancient volcanic rock and the armored vehicles react differently on the hard ground. This they must learn. The nights aren't as cool but the days aren't as hot. The base is closer to the border, the conditions more primative. The "dining area" is a tent, not a building and there is no airconditioning. The meals are a combination of combat rations and some extras thrown in, not hot cooked meals with a choice of selections.

They are now trained soldiers. The armored vehicle that Elie can drive had a problem - a cable had disconnected and something wasn't working correctly. Elie reported to his commanding officer who contacted the unit mechanics. When the mechanics arrived and asked the commanding officer what the problem was, he sent them to Elie. Elie watched as they fixed it, and the next time it happened, Elie just fixed it himself. It reminds me of the hours and hours Elie has spent fixing our cars with his father.

At first we thought Elie would be home this weekend, but in the end, it turned out it is Elie's turn to remain on base and patrol. Next weekend, the entire unit remains on base and so we are in for another 3 week stretch without seeing him. The physcial distance to the north is not much different than the physical distance to his base in the south...it might even be closer, and yet it feels so much further.

The situation with Syria is tenous. It could remain as it is...or get worse at any time. We may be months away from war, weeks, or days. Few think we are years away and almost everyone agrees there will be one.

Early on in the summer, it seemed war was imminent and almost a certainty to be this summer. Now that we have gotten through the summer, it appears the immediate threat has lessened. That doesn't mean the army is any less prepared or any less on guard, but it allows us, the mothers and fathers of soldiers, to breathe a little easier, to sleep a little deeper and to hope a little more.

Friday, August 17, 2007

On His Way Home...

Elie is on his way home for the weekend. He'll be here shortly. This is the second week in a row that he is able to be home for Shabbat. I cherish it because I already know that next week he won't be here. This is the week he will complete yet another phase of his training. It's been a long and dusty week for him, spending much of it out in the desert with his unit, his armored vehicle, and the supplies they need.

Unlike the earlier training sessions where they had to carry what they needed on their backs, now they travel in a vehicle that is roughly the size of a tank. All the water they need, the food, sleeping bags and more are within the tank. Last weekend, knowing what the week would bring, Elie asked me to make a double batch of cookies. Usually, this is something I do when he will be gone for two weeks, so it was a strange request.

Elie explained that they would be able to pack the cookies into the vehicle and sure enough, when I spoke to him on Tuesday (after his returning to base on Sunday), one box of cookies (roughly 120 cookies) was gone already. By the end of the next day, the second box was gone as well.

When I jokingly asked if I should perhaps make 3 huge containers for the coming week, Elie responded almost seriously, "perhaps four."

It is no secret that relations between Israel and Syria, never good, are now particularly strained with almost daily news bulletins on whether or not war will erupt in the coming weeks. In addition to all his other studies, Elie is learning about Syria.

"What are they teaching you?" I asked him.

"Everything," he answered. Of course, he has learned about Syria's army, but he has also learned about its government, its leaders, and history. This too is something of value that the army gives to our children.

And last night, Elie's middle brother and I went shopping for the food we needed to prepare for Shabbat (the Jewish Sabbath). Israel is a small country in so many ways and having a son in the army makes it all that much smaller. As I approached the cashier, my groceries loaded on the checkout counter, I heard the customer ahead of me ask the cashier about her sons (she has twin 20 year old boys - one in tanks and one in artillery).

When I approached and the cashier began processing my groceries, I mentioned that I too have a son in artillery - this is the way things are in Israel. She asked what base he was on (her son is already in the north), and I remembered Elie telling me that most of his larger unit was moving up there for training while his group remained in the south a little longer.

In the end, it turns out she was there during the Tekes Kumta, equally touched by the special ceremony. She too found it difficult to locate her son among the hundreds of soldiers that approached the parents quickly. She told me she'd made a big sign and held it up as he approached and that she'd frozen ice popsicles to hand out to the soldiers as they passed her. I smiled and explained that this was my first real encounter with the army and I was still learning. A big sign...and ices - smart, I thought to myself.

And as I drove home, I wondered what it would be like to have twin sons in the army at the same time. It is hard enough having one son in at a time, I think. My heart is always divided between Elie on one side, and another part here in the present with my husband, my other children and my work and responsibilities. I can't imagine it being divided into yet another direction at the same time.

For now, though, I put this all aside - Elie is on his way home...a few more minutes and he will be here. A weekend with my heart back in one piece and everyone together. That is the most precious Shabbat gift of all.

Tuesday, August 7, 2007

Baking in the Desert

Elie called me today during his lunch break. Now that he has finished his basic training, he is allowed to carry his cellular phone. He told me that he was out on a training operation with his unit. They'd driven into the desert and would remain there overnight.

"What are you doing now?" I ask him, and he began to explain that they were cooking a can of tuna.

"Why are you doing that?"

"To see how it tastes." Ok, that seems simple enough. Then Elie explained that they aren't allowed to create a fire within 30 meters of his armored vehicle. That makes sense too, I told him. But, what about your commanding officer, I asked. Elie had explained that he was out on the training operation with his commanding officer's commanding officer - sort of like the army's answer to the boss' boss.

"What about him?" Elie asked.

Does he know what you are doing? Does he agree to have you doing this? Is it ok? These are all clearly "mother" questions, I quickly learned.

"Yes," Elie answered. "It was his idea."

It was then that I remembered something very basic about Israel's army. Elie's commanding officer is, at most, two years older than Elie.

Later, Elie told me that they hadn't warmed up the tuna enough and would try again the next day.

Sunday, August 5, 2007

Things a Mother Doesn't Need to Know

There are things a mother doesn't need to know, doesn't want to know. And yet, as Elie describes things to me, I know that perhaps he needs to say them. I wonder sometimes if Elie is trying to make sure that I know as much as other Israeli mothers, or if perhaps they don't know these things either until their son starts explaining.

I know that he is happy in the army. That sounds strange to someone who focuses on what "army" and "soldier" stands for in this world, but day to day, Elie's life has nothing to do with war and bloodshed. For him, it has to do with reaching a new level of maturity, of trust, of development.

He is, perhaps for the first time in his life, testing his body and finding it strong and adaptable. He is learning how far he can push his body, how much he can run, how far he can walk, how much he can carry, how carefully he can coordinate his eyes, his brains, and his arms to see a target, to calculate the distance, and to aim and shoot.

He is demanding that his body perform with less sleep than he would sometimes like, on a schedule not his own. He is stronger, a little thinner, and more confident than ever. The army teaches him and tests him, and he excels.

The army has chosen wisely for my son. I don't know about how well others are matched to their intended tasks; I only know that Elie is where he belongs and he is shining through each experience. Today he called to say he was being given another short course - this one to be in charge of the other soldiers in the vehicle when his commanding officer is needed to direct the armored vehicle.

It is a natural part of our relationship, that Elie would share his experiences with me. Elie knows that he can talk to me, that I will try to listen. This is a new side to our relationship; one that I cherish and believe I need as much as he apparently does. He calls when he has time and I am honored by each call, humbled that he reaches out.

I remember when I first started having children that I noticed that there were some mothers who didn't seem to grow with their children. This was true of some mothers who still had babies as their older children reached their teen years. Some were so focused on the little ones that they didn't realize that the needs of the older kids were so very different. The needs of a teenager have little to do with giving them food or physically taking them into shelter. You no longer tell them when they need to rest. It was once so simple compared to the problems and realities of a teenager.

As I changed diapers or held bottles or fed little ones, my mind could wander and think about other things. They went to bed so early that I had long hours in the evening to accomplish what I couldn't do during the day. At the time, it seemed so hard but now it seems like I must have had all the time in the world. But I did notice, when my kids were little, that older children of my friends needed something different.

It was something I was lucky enough to learn before I had teenagers and so as my older children grew, I tried to grow with them. I tried to let them reach their borders, and push beyond them even as my younger children still required the simpler forms of attention. I wanted each child to have the security to be all that he or she wanted.

This is particularly hard in a society where security is often the one thing you don't have. At times, it is an act of faith simply to let your child take a bus or meet a friend at the mall. Deny them these "normal" things, and you damage them. Grant them these freedoms, and you worry that they will be in the wrong place, at the wrong time.

Perhaps one of the hardest things a parent has to do, is know when to be there and when to let them fly. You cannot choose your child's world; you can only hope and pray they stay safe no matter what world they choose, no matter where they go, no matter what they do. And, as they grow, as they experience, we are left behind to follow them only through their eyes, their words.
Elie calls or comes home and tells me about army life and with each new challenge, my mind jumps ahead to the greater meaning behind why the army is training, moving, teaching. I have never been to war, and yet life's experiences teach us the value of life. This is not something most "kids" Elie's age need understand.

Each of the things he tells me sticks in my mind long after the conversation ends. I swirl it through my brain and add the parts that Elie doesn't say. There is more than one dog tag, I learned early on...and I could figure out why, even though Elie didn't explain. As he told me about this, I remember thinking that this was more detail than a mother needed to know. I have thought that many times in the last few months, but never once have I told him this. If it is on his mind, I want him to feel he can tell me, never to know how I suffer with the knowledge, how I cry at times with fear and how, most of all, I marvel.

The army is shifting training schedules and locations, and this too is something I don't really want to consider too carefully. I know the date my son will be "ready" for war according to the army, and can't help but wonder if anyone is ever ready.

And in tonight's conversation, more information that I don't really want to know. Several years ago, there was a great tragedy in Israel. Two helicopters collided while carrying 73 Israeli soldiers. There were no survivors. In the weeks and certainly in the months to come, Elie will be flying in helicopters if the army needs to move his unit great distances. If they are in the north and there is trouble in Gaza, they will fly by helicopter...and if they are in the south and need to reach the north to face a threat there, again, helicopters will be used. Just as those mothers and fathers didn't know, it is likely that I won't know in advance where he is, what he does, where he goes until later when, God willing, he will be there safe and have the chance to tell me.

Elie has been told to prepare name tags and before the troops enter the helicopter, these name tags are collected. Never again will the army have to wonder or figure out who was on what vehicle. Elie didn't remind me about the helicopter disaster. But I know, and he knows, and we both understand what the army was saying. He's too young to face this possibility, my mind says clearly. How old was I the first time I considered my mortality? Certainly not in my 20s and maybe not in my 30s.

This too I would not wish for my son and yet he understands. They only need to know who was on the helicopter if they don't get off safely on the other side of the journey. That's what this is - a journey, for Elie and for me, and as he goes through this journey, he stops every once in a while, and pulls me along.

It reminds me of when he was very little and I was anxious to get somewhere. I would push his younger brother in the carriage several yards ahead and then wait for Elie to catch up. When he did, I'd move on ahead, knowing he'd follow at his own pace.

Now he is doing this to me. He runs ahead with the army and then stops to help me catch up. Slowly, with each new step he takes, with the knowledge he gains, he helps me understand this strange new world he has entered. At times, he hints at technological wonders and at times he speaks of physical challenges. And, at times, he tells me things that a mother doesn't need to know...because ultimately, at some level, I too have to face this new world he has entered.

Friday, August 3, 2007

Thoughts of the Week Gone By

It's been a quiet week in which I barely got a chance to speak to Elie. He called one evening close to midnight to tell me that he had just been released for some free time, but had to do guard duty for 30 minutes before going to bed. When I expressed some concern, he told me he was lucky. By finishing his guard duty at the beginning of the night, and not in the middle, he would be able to get six whole hours sleep.

Other than that, he's there in the south learning and preparing. The army has intensified his training. This too is a scary thought. Israel does not want a war; it has never wanted war. But last year showed us that we had been preparing ourselves for the new threat Israel and the world has faced in the last decade, that of terrorism, and had put aside the old threat of more standard warfare. For so long, too long, Palestinians have chosen to sneak into our cities and blow up buses rather than fight against an army. For so long, too long, they have attacked our innocents. Last summer, first Palestinians from Gaza and then Hizbollah from Lebanon crossed into Israel, attacked and kidnapped our soldiers. What started as an act of aggression grew into a more traditional war against our soldiers and a terror war of indiscriminate rockets against our civilians in the north. Last summer's war taught us that we must be prepared to face both types of threats.

The Second Lebanon War, as it is now being called, was not a conventional war in many ways. Long gone, at least from the Palestinian and Hizbollah points of view, is any sense that civilians are not legitimate targets. Last summer, as Israel entered Lebanon to try to bring home two soldiers who had been kidnapped from our territory, Hizbollah started a war against our civilians. Thousands of rockets later and after hundreds were killed and wounded, we still didn't have our soldiers, but we had a clearer sense that we must prepare for a new kind of war.

This is the lesson that Israel's government may not have learned, but Israel's army did. Most importantly, there is a strong motivation on the part of Israel's vast reserve army to be ready, to know how to fight this enemy and all others on all fronts and in all ways. Elie is training, almost around the clock, so when the next threat comes, he and his unit will be part of the battle.

As a mother, I would wish differently, of course. I would have him training safely in the desert for three years or more, never to go to battle, never to know of war, never to lose a friend, never to risk injury and harm, or worse. That is the mother in me.

The Israeli in me applauds the army's initiative, its drive to fix past mistakes so that our soldiers are more prepared. I have no doubt, nor do the Arabs, that Israel's army is stronger and better equipped and better trained. This is not a secret to anyone in the world. And, an added factor we have always had on our side is that our soldiers know that they fight for their homes, their families, their nation. This is not some distant battle in a faraway land. This is a fight, has always been and will always be, a fight for the existence of Israel.

The Israeli in me applauds the motivation of the troops, regular and reserve, to throw themselves into training, to demand that the army improve and intensify. Not because they want war, but because they want to be able to answer this time, as they were not allowed to last time.

I can't quiet the mother in me, the fear that paralyzes me into silence or fills my eyes with tears at the thought of what Elie might see or do in the next few weeks, months and years. I can't protect him, as a close friend of mine couldn't protect her son when he went into Lebanon last summer, when he fought, when he lost close friends before his eyes. She could only love him, support him, listen to him, hold him, and pray for him.

The Arabs don't care about the mother in me, but they must know about the Israeli in me and in each of us here. The enemy you faced last summer and in many ways defeated, was not destroyed and never will be.

We had become complacent, spoiled, and unchallenged in victory. That complacency enabled you to come in and take three of our sons (Ehud, Eldad, and Gilad). That complacency enabled you to fire thousands of rockets, burn down hundreds of acres of forest we had lovingly planted, destroy homes and buildings throughout our north and force our northern residents to hide or flee.

That complacency is no more.

The army is ready - not to attack...but to defend. Not to seek war, but to answer aggression and protect our people. Our soldiers are ready to meet all threats to our land. The Givati, Golani and Shiryonim units will do what they need to...and Tot-hanim...my son's artillery division...will be there as well. If there is to be a war in the coming weeks and months, Elie will be there - with my prayers and fears, but more importantly, with the training given to an Israeli soldier to defend the land and people of Israel and with God's blessing and help, we will yet show that the Nation of Israel lives. Am Yisrael Chai.

For now, as we once again prepare for the coming Sabbath, once again without Elie who is on base, we pray for the peace of Jerusalem and all of Israel. Shabbat shalom.

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